Friday, May 10, 2019

The Play That Goes Wrong - National Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

This is the way the logo is used in marketing materials. It's wrong, you see.
One of the rare non-musical touring shows to come to the Twin Cities this year is The Play That Goes Wrong. The show is an all-out slapstick comedy about a play that suffers from one mishap after another. Even before the curtain goes up, members of the crew are in the theater, trying to repair the dilapidated set.

The play we see is a standard-issue British murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor, a production of the Cornley University Drama Society, which somehow ended up as a major touring production in the U.S. More on that later. The curtain rises on a not-quite-dead body, falls again, and rises on the actor still trying to get in place as the deceased. The fact that the supposedly dead man ends up moving himself around the stage elicits many of the first laughs of the evening. The set falling apart, actors forgetting or mispronouncing their lines, props going missing, and actors inappropriately playing to the crowd are some of the issues this play faces.

The Play That Goes Wrong National Tour.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
As the play continues, the stakes are raised, with actors risking life and limb on the clearly dangerous set and more than one door slamming in someone's face. The actions range from ridiculous to downright dangerous, and though the first act is slow to start, by the end, the catastrophes pile up fast and furiously.

If you like physical comedy, this is a great show for you. The opening night audience was laughing up a storm. And there are plenty of jokes that will appeal to anyone who has worked or performed in theater at any level. It's light and diverting, and a fun way to spend an evening. If that all sounds good, definitely go see this play.

However, certain aspects of this play struck me as quite familiar. Michael Frayn’s 1982 play Noises Off is probably the best-known farce about theater. Having performed in two different productions as Dotty Otley (the role played by Carol Burnett in the 1992 film version), I'm very familiar with Noises Off. There are definite similarities to The Play That Goes Wrong and the comparison does not flatter TPTGW.

In both plays, things go seriously awry with a British theater production. Multiple people, including the stage manager and other crew members, end up on stage taking over the actors roles. Sometimes, multiple performers play the same character simultaneously. Actors plow ahead with lines, even when they are out of order and don't make sense. An attractive young woman ends up onstage in her underwear. Props go missing and parts of the set malfunction.

But here's where the two plays diverge: Where Noises Off has strong, fully realized characters and actual stakes for the characters and the success of their play, TPTGW does not. We know next to nothing about the characters and have little investment in their success. And we are left with so many questions. Also, in Noises Off, the things that go wrong are crucial to the successful performance of the play. In TPTGW, it doesn't matter if the mantelpiece can't hold the candlesticks, as they are never referred to again. Why are the actors invested in making sure things stick to the walls when, again, it doesn't ultimately advance the plot later on? How is it that this shoddy set includes a working elevator?

How would a British university drama society play end up on Broadway? BTW, the joke about mixing up tickets with Hamilton really only works on Broadway. And please, stop pandering to your touring audiences with local mentions--in this case, Wisconsin. Also, if they're from Britain, why does their light and sound operator have an American Southern accent?

Why are the female and actors of color disproportionately abused onstage? Why is there so much head trauma? Why doesn't the stage manager know the play? Why does she fight the lead actress after she returns to her role? Does there need to be a gay panic male/male kiss?

When The Play That Goes Wrong was first performed as a one act in a London pub, it was probably quite amusing. But it doesn't live up to expectations as a full length touring production.